Sao Paulo—A university named after a 17th-Century rebel slave leader in Brazil is at the forefront of a controversy over the country’s complex racial identity.
Unipalmares, as it is known for short, was founded in 2003 as a private college in the run-down Sao Paulo district of Luz.
With its utilitarian classrooms and its array of desktop computers, it could be any Brazilian academic institution.
But uniquely, it reserves 50% of its places for black students, reflecting the fact that roughly half the country’s 183 million people have African slaves as forefathers.
The university’s rector, Jose Vicente, says its aim is to provide higher education for underprivileged Brazilians in general, but with particular emphasis on black people.
“It has become a reference point as a place where minorities can have the opportunity for access to higher education, taking into account that this access is still very limited in our country,” he says.
“A large part of the public, if they didn’t have this opportunity, would find it difficult to study elsewhere.”
Brazil has more people with black ancestry than any other country outside Africa. But there are very few black people in the higher echelons of society, including government, Congress and top posts in the civil service and armed forces.
Black people remain socially disadvantaged in Brazil. Last year, a UN Development Programme report found that a huge economic gulf existed in the country between the black and white population.
However, racial mixing has been taking place in Brazil throughout its 500-year history. As a result, many of its citizens regard themselves as neither black nor white, but something in between.
For some, Unipalmares is a chance to change the fact that most black Brazilians remain at the bottom of the heap in the country’s rigidly hierarchical society.
For others, it is a threat to Brazil’s very nature.
They see it as an attempt to replace the country’s hallowed notions of “racial democracy” with US-style affirmative action, polarising the population and forcing millions of people to choose between being black or white.
The issue has come to the fore in Brazil recently because of attempts in Congress to compel other universities to introduce racial quotas.
Efforts are also under way, with the backing of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to bring in a statute of racial equality that would extend the same quota system to civil service jobs, the private sector and even television.
Mr Vicente hopes that the 1,000 students at Unipalmares will become the managers and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.
The university already has partnerships with three banks—HSBC, Bradesco and Itau—that offer internships to Unipalmares students.
However, all its lessons are evening classes, because its students work during the day to support themselves.
Clayton Amaral Simoes, aged 29, is in his first year of study. His employment record includes manning the cash desk at a bakery and making pizzas at Pizza Hut.
He now works at a call centre run by Atento do Brasil, a company owned by the Spanish telecoms firm Telefonica.
He hopes that his course in financial administration will help him get a better job in the same line of work.
“I’d like to do something involving team leadership,” he says. “What I learn here, I can use in the firm—it’s great. I wouldn’t have the chance to study at all if it weren’t for this place.”
A new best-selling book by journalist Ali Kamel, entitled We’re Not Racists, makes the case against racial quotas.
He points out that according to government statistics, 42% of Brazilians do not identify themselves as black or white, but as mixed-race.
He argues that Brazilians come in “a whole rainbow of colours” and rejects the idea that anyone non-white should automatically be labelled black.
His book is described on the front cover as “a reaction to those who want to turn us into a two-colour nation”—a remark that draws scorn from Mr Vicente.
“Brazilian society is effectively a two-colour one. From the point of view of privileges, access and social status, it always was,” he says.
“If you look at all the areas of prestige and social value in Brazilian society, it’s a two-colour system, because the whites are at the top and everyone else is at the bottom.
“This is no longer sustainable, because those underneath are demanding change. The country will explode if you carry on maintaining these privileges for very few people in just one economic class, while the vast majority of Brazilians have no access to any of these privileged positions.”
In other Brazilian seats of learning, the argument over racial quotas continues. Peter Fry, an anthropologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), regrets that Brazil has not tried to tackle racism with publicity campaigns, as it has done with Aids.
“I always thought that Brazil could resolve the issue in a different way, without putting race into the letter of the law, which I think is an immense danger,” he told the Folha de S Paulo newspaper.
Antonio Sergio Alfredo Guimaraes, a sociologist at the University of Sao Paulo (USP), believes the statute of racial equality is trying to regulate too many aspects of life in one go and has not been properly thought out.
But he thinks affirmative action can work if people’s own perceptions of their colour are taken at face value.
“What these policies do is accept self-declaration as a reality. In that sense, there’s no problem. But if people start setting up tribunals and commissions to decide people’s colour, then it’ll all go haywire.”
For the first time since Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, legislation to narrow the social gap between black and white people is now a real possibility. But if the law is not carefully drafted, it could end up doing more harm than good.